I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling that autumn is the best time of year to be cooking. While I love the colourful bounty of summer, particularly gluts of downy apricots and bouncy red berries, autumn brings with it wonders of equal beauty, along with another crucial ingredient: weather.
You see, along with the mists and chill days of autumn comes that magical thing: an excuse to eat comfort food. Suddenly we can justify wanting nothing more than to curl up with a bowl of hearty stew and a pile of pillowy mashed potato. How lucky that Mother Nature chooses this time of the year to offer us dark, rich game; golden, robust root vegetables; glossy burnished nuts; curled, crunchy, springy greens; mellow, juicy, russet-skinned orchard fruits. While perhaps not as obviously glowing and vibrant as the produce of high summer, to me autumn ingredients have a dark, subtle and muted magic of their own.
In order to celebrate British autumn produce, I was asked by Floral & Hardy garden designers to come up with a three-course autumn feast, to demonstrate the range of ingredients that can be grown in British gardens, making the most of our gardens and also saving a bit of money in the supermarket. Given my aforementioned love of the culinary potential of this season, I of course said yes, and had great fun coming up with three lovely autumnal recipes for you, the first of which is this starter - stay tuned for the main course and dessert over the next week or so.
You probably don't need to be told that growing your own fruit and veg is a great thing to do. I am looking forward to turning the patch of wilderness that is the garden of my new house into a treasure trove of home-grown delights at some point; I love the romanticism that comes with being able to take your dinner from its natural habitat to the kitchen by walking a matter of metres, saving money and food miles. Among the wealth of produce available to be grown by the home gardener are courgettes, tomatoes, peppers, beetroot, blackberries, beans and mushrooms - all beautiful autumn ingredients. I'm no expert on home-grown, though, so if you're keen to get started I would recommend the wonderful Tender cookbooks by Nigel Slater, who talks about growing your own from a cook's point of view. Floral & Hardy also have a gardening blog for the keen (or amateur!) gardener.
This recipe, a perfect autumnal starter, combines several of my favourite seasonal staples.
Firstly, we have squash. Perhaps the most quintessential autumn vegetable, owing to its presence on our doorsteps hollowed out with an evil grimace and a candle inside, there are very few uses to which squash cannot be put in the kitchen (but don't try cooking with those pumpkins the supermarkets sell for Halloween, which are watery and tasteless). It generally finds its way into my lunchbox every day alongside couscous and feta cheese, but can form a sturdy basis for substantial cold-weather salads, combined with pulses like lentils, pearl barley, or bulgur wheat. It's also excellent in risotto. Owing to its sweetness, squash needs to be paired with salty flavours - strong cheeses are ideal, or bacon. It also works surprisingly well with other sweet things, like dried fruit and chestnuts, which somehow make it seem less sweet in comparison.
While the butternut squash is ubiquitous in markets and supermarkets, it's worth tracking down other varieties if you can - farmers' markets often have them. Crown Prince squash are lovely, with a delicate teal-coloured skin and a robust flesh, although they're often giant. I'm a big fan of the little squash that can be served as individual portions, as is the case here. They come in a multitude of shapes, sizes and colours, and possess a knobbly, rustic charm that is lacking in the predictably super-smooth, tapered butternut. That's one of the reasons for growing your own, too - you can enjoy varieties you might otherwise struggle to track down.
Next up, Swiss chard. This is both a blessing and a curse to the magpie-like food shopper, a breed to which I am unashamed to state I belong. Whenever I spy bunches of glorious chard at a market or supermarket, I can never resist hoarding it. Those rainbow stems are just too beautiful. However, it then languishes in my fridge because I'm never entirely sure what to do with it - unlike squash, I have no knee-jerk recipes up my sleeve for chard (until now). The best guide is to treat the stems a little like celery, and the leaves like spinach. I once made a delicious Swiss chard and feta filo pastry pie, which combined the chard with salty feta, pine nuts, and plump raisins. The combination is delicious - the raisins go wonderfully well with chard, enhancing its natural sweetness and preventing its iron tang from cloying, while the nuts provide texture.
I adapted that combination here, for the stuffing of the squash. I sauteed the chard stalks along with some sliced red onion - another ingredient that seems very autumnal to me - and garlic. To this I added dried cranberries, soaked in boiling water until plump and juicy. I could have used raisins, but cranberries - though not grown over here - seem very British at this time of year, given our penchant for them on the Christmas table. The chard leaves went in too, to soften, and finally some chestnuts.
Chestnuts are an ingredient I only discovered a couple of years ago. I went through a phase of dutifully roasting my own in the oven, until I realised that life is too short and you can buy perfectly decent pre-cooked, pre-peeled vacuum packed ones that are fine for cooking (though if you just want to eat them on their own, I'd suggest buying a bag of raw ones and doing it yourself). I may also have had a few explode in the oven due to my sub-standard scoring of their skins - they make a thoroughly alarming cannon-like explosion sound; I wouldn't recommend it, for your own sanity.
Chestnuts, with their rich flavour and fudgy, crumbly texture, add a beautiful sweetness and interest to all sorts of autumn dishes. They're great with rich meat, like game, because of their sweet flavour. They're also good with other sweet ingredients, like squash. I added them to my chard mixture for texture and flavour, where they went extremely well with the sweet cranberries and the crunchy, earthy chard.
This is a really lovely starter dish for autumn. The sweet chard mixture is combined with gruyere cheese, spooned into a squash that has been hollowed out, seasoned and roasted until tender, then everything is baked in the oven with more gruyere cheese on top. You could use any cheese - blue cheese, goat's cheese or feta would all work well - but gruyere has a delicious strong, salty, rich flavour that is necessary to contrast with the sweet squash, cranberries and chestnuts. Each person ends up with a delightful little squash bowl encasing a delicious sweet-sour-savoury filling, with a moreish crust of salty, burnished gruyere cheese on top. It's pretty easy to make, can be assembled in advance, and is vegetarian (though gruyere probably isn't totally veggie, like a lot of cheeses, so you might want to check which cheese you use).
I really love the combination of flavours in this dish. It would be the kind of nauseating food-writer cliche that I hate to pronounce it 'autumn on a plate'...so instead I will call it 'autumn made better by putting cheese on top'.
2 small squash - best if you can get round ones, but if not just use the rounded ends of butternut squash
Salt and pepper
A few sprigs lemon thyme (or normal thyme)
50g dried cranberries
80ml boiling water
2 bunches swiss chard
2 red onions
3 garlic cloves, crushed
150g cooked chestnuts
60-80g gruyere cheese, grated (or more if you love cheese...and who doesn't?!)
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Cut the squash in half horizontally and scoop out the seeds, so you have four cup-shaped halves. Rub the squash inside and out with olive oil, then season well. Sprinkle over a few thyme leaves. Place in the oven and cook for around 30 minutes, hollow side up, until just tender.
Meanwhile, make the stuffing. Soak the cranberries in the boiling water. Heat a little olive oil in a large frying pan. Peel and thinly slice the red onions. Cook these over a gentle heat for a few minutes until starting to soften, then add the garlic cloves and cook for a few more minutes. Slice the chard stalks thinly and add to the pan. Cook for a few minutes until these are softening too, then add the cranberries, the cranberry soaking water, and the chard leaves.
Cover with a lid and cook for around 5 minutes, until everything is softening. Remove the lid and allow the water to evaporate away. Roughly chop the chestnuts and add to the pan, along with a generous amount of salt and pepper and a few thyme leaves. Taste and check the seasoning.
When the squash is cooked, remove it from the oven. Stir half the gruyere into the chard mixture, then use this to stuff the squash. Sprinkle the remaining gruyere over the top of the chard in the squash. (If you have any chard mixture left over, just serve it alongside when the squash are done). Put these back in the oven for 10-15 minutes, until the cheese has melted.